# Understanding numbers

In an earlier blog I mentioned maths anxiety. This can be crippling for some children. We don’t know quite what’s at the root of this, perhaps it is the perception that, in maths, things are either right or wrong. The very thing that makes maths a joy to some children, makes it seem inaccessible to others. Sometimes parents are at a loss to support their children, entirely perplexed by this apparent mental block where numbers are concerned. Other times, one parent will confess that they, too, are unhappy mathematicians.

Some children experience difficulties acquiring maths skills as part of a wider learning difference. For others it is a co-occurrence. For some, it is the one thing that makes school difficult. We might think that makes it easier, but speak to a mathematician and you will realise that maths is all around us. If we are able to communicate, then technology can help support literacy skills in many ways. There is a tendency to suggest that in adulthood, we all use calculators, and that is true, but if a person has no feel for numerosity, the “numberness” of numbers, their difficulties will not be addressed by simply employing tech. Multisensory learning, employing physical props and manipulatives as well as a variety of visual prompts, catch phrases and memory boosters is as important for support in maths as it can be in literacy.

When children don’t automatically learn the alphabet, or take naturally to reading, there is usually support and understanding from school and parents. It may take time, and it’s not always perfect, but there are schemes aplenty promising to boost children’s literacy skills. So what should we do, if children don’t begin to display and record their mathematical knowledge in line with their peers?

##### Keep it light hearted

Songs, chants and rhymes are a great way to introduce children to number concepts. They are appropriate from a very early age, but can be adapted to suit children throughout the primary years. Use them to reinforce sequencing and concepts of time, number bonds and even times tables.

##### Make it relevant

If children can’t see the point of being able to do something, why would they put in the effort? Draw attention to numbers and quantities, talk about how many pencils you need on the table if all four children at the table need three colours each. How many people are here today? If there are 28 in our class and one person is missing, how many members of the class are in school? How many slices of cake/pizza do we need? How many chairs are there and how many people? Too many/not enough? (Adapt to suit the age and stage, but you get the idea)

##### Prompts and displays

Posters and displays can be really helpful, but children need to be taught to use them. Whether on a classroom wall or in the kitchen or bedroom at home, if the prompt isn’t pointed out, it may as well be just decoration. Start by showing them the poster, talk them through the concepts, teach them how to use the information on the poster to help them remember what to do, and make sure they know where the poster is in the room. If at all possible, place it where it will easily be seen by those who need it, without craning necks.

Mathematical language

Teach this really explicitly. Talk about word origins and other related language. At the beginning of a new and unfamiliar unit of study, make a lesson out of this if necessary, so that children can be really comfortable and familiar with the terminology. This can be a real confidence booster. Have plenty of visual aids, including wall posters, desk prompts and pictorial mathematical dictionaries.

Physical props

See it, hear it, say it, do it. The transfer of knowledge for some will happen between hearing an explanation and seeing a demonstration, so that they are able to record what they have learnt. This will not be the same for every child. For many, being able to handle and count objects, or see and feel the difference in size, representing the difference in quantity, will unlock first counting, then comparison and simple addition and subtraction, and can be used very effectively to illustrate and practise multiplication and division. Look at Numicon, Cuisenaire rods and Mathlink cubes for ideas. There are all sorts of online resources using digital versions of these, but the physical props need to be truly familiar for these to make sense, if maths skills are not developing easily.

##### Recording ideas

Try to have a balance between developing and consolidating true understanding and recording things in writing. A written record is useful, but it is only meaningful to the learner if he or she is able to understand it and use it to model future calculations. Small hands lack the dexterity to write neatly, and so large books and whiteboards are more appropriate at the early stages of mathematical ‘literacy’. Later, the UK norm is for children to use books with 1cm square lined paper, progressing to 0.8cm. A wise dyslexia specialist recommended 0.7cm squares to me for my dyslexic learners when I was still a new teacher, and I have consistently found this helpful for them, where recording work more legibly is concerned.

##### Desk prompts and props

I have seen well-intentioned teachers design and provide double-sided A4 prompts containing every shape name, times tables, facts on the decimal system and many other reminders for Key Stage 2 learners. However, if a child needs a prompt, it needs to be clear and easy to use, not busy and confusing. One concept on one side of one sheet. If students are to keep them in their desk draws, include a picture of the prompt they need on your IWB presentation, so they can find it easily. The same goes for physical props: either supply the appropriate props when they are needed, or display them on the board, so that they can be accessed. Individual packs of resources in zip-lock bags/folders either in (TARDIS-like) desk drawers, or in a central classroom store.

These ideas can be adapted for whole class, small group, 1:1 and home use.